Image processing: there’s a thin line between aspiration and desperation. The former sees a photographer pushing the boundaries of technology to expand, or improve, his/her style and the latter sees the same photographer crossing that boundary and free falling into a pit of ridicule.
Any tour guide with even half a conscience will recognise the gut-wrenching feeling of lying in bed listening to the wind howling and the rain pounding outside. If it happens once or twice on a tour, the guests will likely sympathise but night after night and I start to stress. Arctic Norway is never going to be straightforward in winter and that’s why we go, but a constant near-gale south-westerly with all that it brings, isn’t good news.
Without realising, I’ve been dashing around Scotland for the last 20 years with my head wedged firmly between my buttocks (too much detail?). I’ve not intended to be blind to the landscape in front of me but rather than look, see and ‘feel’, I’ve rather tended to simply consume. Recently however, I’ve forced myself to explore the Scottish landscape afresh; to put it in a wider perspective; to understand and appreciate it better, or more fully.
I wonder whether there has ever been a place that has gone through a more meteoric rise to photographic stardom than Iceland? It is the unrivaled Susan Boyle of landscape photography honeypots and I have watched in amazement as a very much 21st century cocktail of media exposure has propelled this cold and unforgiving island into a major tourism destination. Continue reading “Winter Iceland”
You would think that even in these days of meteorological uncertainty, snow above the Arctic Circle could be relied upon in February. Alas no. The normally snow-laden Lofoten Islands in northern Norway were bare this year; naked; bereft of their white mantle; lacking in the wow factor that I’ve become accustomed to. Still, there’s no point in griping (although I’ve always found it helps), one has to do one’s best. Continue reading “Languid Lofoten”
The look on his face said it all. Fixing the icy strap to the front of his icy bucket, his eyes rolled as he climbed back in the icy cab of the monstrous snowplough before pulling my little tin box of a van from the snowdrift in just a matter of seconds. I wanted to explain about the fantastic light and the need to seize the moment; I wanted to tell him that the bus stop was the only place to pull off the road but I decided just to shake his hand and offer a sheepish “tack”. Bloody tourists.
The Lofoten Islands are part of Norway’s rugged northwest coastline, hanging out into the sea catching all manner of weather full in the face. If you don’t like weather – all sorts of it – don’t come here. It’s a roller coaster: snow that stings your face one minute, sun that blinds you the next. But then that’s the deal and if you accept the terms, this can be one of the most exciting landscape photography locations anywhere. Saw-toothed snow-cloaked mountains rise vertically from the sea; secluded coastal inlets cosset sandy beaches lapped by aquamarine waters and most of all, arctic light. At times, arctic light like I’ve never seen before.
Any landscape photographer worth their salt (that’s me out then) will tell you it’s all about light and that’s because it is. I told our tour group this as we travelled the blizzardous road from the airport to our base in Reine but at the time, even I didn’t expect four days of such intense photographic drama and sublime light.
This tour booked up quickly, no doubt due to the potential for some spectacular aurora photography. We weren’t that lucky in the lights department if truth be told, but the drama that unfolded each day more than compensated. I don’t think I can remember as productive a short period in a very long time.
I hope you like the images and they offer a glimpse into one of the rising stars on the landscape photography circuit. Lofoten smells of fish (obsessed with cod, the Norwegians) and fried cod tongues are definitely not for me but then, I can live on a diet of light, drama and mood – real fuel for the soul. This place is straight up my photographic street. Don’t expect fancy hotels and cosy coffee parlours but do expect drama.
My thanks to our hardy group who were deprived of sleep but still managed to maintain good humour and in a separate incident to the bus stop drama, the energy to help dig the van out of a ditch after a near miss with a 40-tonne Scania. Bagman Alex, Arla, Jackie, John, Kin, Dangerous Mel, Paul and Pauline – all top people and damned fine photographers. We’ll be doing it all again next year if you fancy joining us for a winter bout of wild and wonderful. Book here.
Now don’t get me wrong, most Americans I’ve met are generally very nice people. The trouble with America is that it’s full of Americanisms. That’s ‘isms’. Yes I know the bit about ‘when in Rome’ but some things just drive me nuts. Billboards! How much information can you actually absorb at 50mph? Cars that consider you incapable of making even the most basic decisions (like closing the boot without intervention from a too-clever-for-its-own-good automated system); carbohydrate-laden meals that could feed a country for a week; a gratuity system that defies all logic and that’s before we get stuck into the right to bear arms, and as was demonstrated recently, the propensity to discharge them. I could go on (and on) but my soapbox is giving way (primarily as a result of afore-mentioned carbohydrate overload). Suffice it to say that despite a common language, America and some of its ‘isms’ are hard for me to fathom (to be fair it could be as much to do with middle age as anything – mine not America’s).
Despite all of the ‘isms’ there is no doubt that America is a land of superlatives. It’s unique, as are its inhabitants – human and non-human alike. Moreover, despite the usual cultural and political divides that preside over any public asset, the US National Park system is one of America’s better ideas and none more so than Yellowstone. The thing with Yellowstone is its story. It’s one of historical foresight, pioneering thinking, a few ill-informed predator management decisions along the way and more recently, ecological restoration; that’s not to mention the geological processes that continue to drive and change the Yellowstone narrative. This place has it all. Outside of winter it also has lots of visitors and so it was we set off in January.
‘We’ in this case was two groups of hardy (and not so hardy – you know who you are!) tour guests. As ever the Northshots formula of serious photography and not-so serious downtime prevailed and seemingly, a good time was had by all (no doubt our feedback forms will reveal if I’ve read this incorrectly).
The northern part of Yellowstone is driveable in winter and is usually a safe bet for wolf sightings. Alas, this year it was not to be and both groups returned home wolfless. Photographic opportunities of this top predator are rare indeed but just a glimpse is enough to set the pulse racing. Wolves aside, we were treated to some wonderful photo opportunities. Bison, red fox, elk and moose all paid dividends, as did the surreal landscape cloaked in a mantel of white.
Lugging one’s carbohydrate-laden body around this mountain landscape is hard work – the air at 7,000ft. deprives you of oxygen – so its fortunate that most photo-opportunities are close to the road making Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks almost perfect photographic locations.
The story of Yellowstone in many ways mirrors the story of America itself and its many ‘isms’ are as apparent here as they are in the heart of New York. Much of what is great about America manifests in the northern Rockies, as do many of the country’s challenges. Differing ecological, cultural and economic perspectives drive debate over land use priorities in this area as they do elsewhere – in this respect Yellowstone is no different to the Scottish Highlands. The uniqueness of Yellowstone however, is that in recent decades, it has become a living laboratory. Ecologists and scientists from all over the world peer in on what many describe as the last remaining fully intact temperate ecosystem in the northern hemisphere. To that end what happens in Yellowstone is important to all of us interested in nature elsewhere. Already, ecological thinking about predator-prey relationships, founded in the Rockies, is emerging in Europe. We’re all part of a story in the making and it was a privilege for me, after an absence of several years, to spend some time with the story’s author despite the ‘isms’.
My thanks as ever to co-guide, top photographer (although I’d never say this to his face) and best buddie Mark Hamblin and to our 20 intrepid guests, most of who will now be on a diet (or at least should be!)
Regular blog readers might remember two postings from Svalbard guest John Cumberland. Well John is blogging again so keep an eye out for his Yellowstone musings in the next week or so.
Our tour for 2014 is already full but if you’d like to be infected by Yellowstoneism in 2015, do drop us a line to register your interest.
I’ve photographed squirrels many, many times but do you know what, the combination of this cute native rodent, pine forest and falling snow, is something that draws me back time and again and it’s just damned good fun. I’m not sure this is a classic image by any means but it recalls a winter’s morning spent alone in my hide…with no phone signal.
I was recently giving thought to the onset of autumn – and then winter – and the roller-coaster of weather we’ll inevitably be dished up. I’ve always been a fan of ostensibly ‘bad’ weather although over the years, I’ve struggled to find people who share such a view. I was buoyed therefore on reading a recent blog post by colleague Bruce Percy, who’s difficulty in filling his winter landscape workshops on Harris & Skye, reveals an apparent widespread reluctance to photographing during the ‘dark months’. As Bruce says – and I agree with him – photographing on the edge of dynamic weather systems is often the most rewarding.
Inaweek or so I’ll be headed off to Harris myself with a group of guests who have ‘seen the light’. I’m sure we’re all hoping for a nice bit of sunny weather to reveal the turquoise Hebridean sea as we sit eating our lunch, but at the same time, I’m hoping for changeable weather providing exciting light. Yes it might rain. I guess it could even snow, but in between, there’s change and that’s when it all happens.
Perhaps we all need to re-arrange our photographic thought processes and spend the ‘good months’ processing the images from the time we spend on the edge during autumn and winter. It can be an unforgiving edge but ‘bad weather’ is only bad for those who aren’t prepared to embrace it.
Ballhead mount: check. Chest waders: check. Hide frame: check. Hide cover: check. Waterproof: check. Camera: check. Capability to carry all of aforementioned: s**t!
And so it was I staggered through the wood yesterday in knee-deep snow, laden with…well, about half of everything I own. It was snowing and by god I was going to get some pictures: Pictures of whooper swans in a blizzard, oh yes. But there are blizzards and blizzards and in some blizzards it’s so blizzardous you can’t actually see your subject (which I always find helpful). Good conditions to set off in a floating hide. Not.
After 30 minutes and several waves having engulfed the camera, I conceded my ambition had exceeded what was realistic. If it wasn’t for the fact that the water was cold and I therefore knew its source was from the waterfall now cascading over my waders, I might have been forgiven for suspecting premature incontinence. Abandon ship and head for port before a Mayday was necessary. To be fair I had got close to the swans (not easy in this part of the world) but it was nigh on impossible to conquer the force 9 gale sweeping across the ocean that is Loch Insh. OK more of a stiff breeze but still damned difficult.
Undeterred I wandered the forest in my very handsome waders looking like some Arctic Andy Pandy still hellbent on getting some snowy images before the onset of spring. It’s fair to say that if you don’t like monochromatic pictures, the Cairngorms was not the place for you yesterday and you probably shouldn’t read on. But I do and so I persevered in my squelchy pants (I did succumb to ditching the waders) and held out long enough to grab a few PLNs (Pleasant Little Numbers).
The rewards nowhere near justified the effort but the pain of sitting at home and wondering ‘what if…’ would have been much more excrutiating. And besides, another life lesson had been learned – I’ll know better next time. If you believe that…